Sunday, November 30, 2008

First Advent Sunday

At this exact moment, the Estonian state TV channel is broadcasting the advent mass - live from one of the country's biggest prisons.

I'll take "odd programming choices" for 200, Alex...

Thursday, November 27, 2008

New Heights in Social Awkwardness

The unwillingness of Estonians to make eye contact and generally acknowledge each other's existence in common everyday interactions is a matter of lore. But some bastions of humanity remain, in the form of supermarket sampler counters. You get a little plastic bowl of salad or a toothpick with a piece of meat or cheese on it, and the counter is staffed by people who restock the selection. These are generally sociable and extrovert people who will happily prattle at you, praising the merchandise, inviting you to come over and try, and then telling you where to find the stuff on the shelves if you decide you liked it.

Went into Selver today, and there was a sampler counter with a whole bunch of tiny salad bowls on it, but no attendants. The management had decided to spare people the discomfort of acknowledging a human being when they're getting their free stuff, so instead they put up a suggestion box and a stack of paper slips where you could write if you liked the new kind of salad or not.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Snowstorm in Tartu

Snowstorm in Tartu
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Bit of long-exposure wankery with my new Canon SX10 IS. The snow pile near my building is the height of two short men.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Good Skiing Weather

I imagine even the foreign readers are now aware of the massive blizzard that's covered Estonia. I caught the start of it last night during my nightgame here in Tallinn; came back to dad's place at 7am, parked and went to sleep. Tried to get out this morning, got a couple meters forward (literally), gave up and went back to dad's to drink bourbon. Will try to get it out tomorrow, but there's a real chance that I will have to leave it in Tallinn until the snow thaws out. (And unlike Louis Z, I have proper, studded winter tires with a bitchin' tread pattern.)

Rural households all around the country, mostly in the north, have lost power - around 32,000 in all, as of Sunday night. Fellow blogger Colm reports that his girlfriend's parents' home has lost water as well; the utility companies are saying that some repairs won't get done until the storm is over, and that won't be until tomorrow night. Colm suggests a significant demographic spike circa August '09; approved.

Still, the cities are holding. Here in Lasnamäe, we have power, water, heat and Internet connectivity, so all the basic human rights are covered. The Christmas market opened in Town Hall Square today. Tartu seems alright as well, but my boss just called and said that it took him three hours to get from Tartu to his house, which is usually a 20-minute trip.

The airport has shut down, as has the ferry traffic. The highways are essentially impassible. Still, as the old saying goes: summer in Estonia is ten months of poor skiing weather.

Webcam of Vabaduse Väljak in Tallinn

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Went to Mobile Monday. Saw some mildly interesting presentations, including one by a reassuringly competent person from Tele2's head office called Josep Nolla. Properly underscored the lamentable fact that Estonians, on the whole, cannot do public speaking for the life of them.

The three main mobile operators in Estonia have joined forces for mobile advertising, offering a joint package - you can buy banner space on all of their WAP portals from a single source. It's expensive, 400 EEK for a thousand impressions; they're claiming a clickthrough rate of 2% to 7%, and a conversion rate of up to 25%, which means you will expect to pay about 80 EEK in banner costs to sell a single widget. Fine if you're selling flatscreen TVs, not so much if you're selling train tickets.

The Tele2 bloke showed an interesting case study of targeting people with an SMS campaign, but failed to answer my question satisfactorily. See, when I get text messages, it tends to be for two reasons: either it's a friend telling me something, or the bank telling me some money just arrived. So I tend to give a lot of attention to incoming SMSes. Consequently, I am disproportionately annoyed by SMS spam; and that is only practiced by my carrier. The carrier can afford to do mass text campaigns, because texts have the highest margin per cost of any mobile service. To Tele2, it's just 160 bytes of data sent to my handset. To anyone else, it's 2.50 EEK per mailing. SMSes have the exact same barrier that is considered to be the only effective (if theoretical) solution to spam: micropayments per message. Not too much trouble for individuals, but prohibitive to spam networks sending out millions of messages at a time.

The panel's answer was that the user alienation factor can be overcome with targeting - sending me only promotions I'd be genuinely interested in; but my rebuttal to that is, in that case, why is he, mr. Nolla (being Tele2), still spamming me with rock concert tickets?

The other issue is that WAP sites are getting more and more elaborate - which is fine, 3G network speeds make browsing rich sites acceptable, but the bastards are still metering traffic. If Tele2/EMT/Elisa want to show me banners, and funnel me to promo websites, and then charge me for the privilege of downloading their banner to my phone, they're taking the piss. But apparently we'll see proper flat-rate data added to operators' plans within next year. Inshalla.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

I received a special request the other day to review Quantum of Solace, and I suppose I really ought to. I was disappointed by Casino Royale, because it portrayed 007 as human and vulnerable - which made it an excellent spook story, but a very poor Bond. On that basis, I fully expect the requestor to make an appearance in the comments section with an extended critique on the failure that is QoS, because I rather liked it.

I still don't think Daniel Craig looks comfortable in a tux, but now he seems to fulfill the promise of those steel blue eyes by learning how to play the proper Bond - not yet suave, but sufficiently nonchalante. Supremely confident and infinitely competent, he represents the presumption that keeps monarchy alive in the 21st century, that there is a need and a use for an independent moral authority. This Bond's duty is not to M. and not to the Prime Minister, but to his country and to the free world; he is the agent in Her Majesty's Secret Service, and I am not talking about MI6. Both the screenplay and Craig's performance supported the viability of the myth of Britain as a cultural export.

Quantum of Solace missed some of the core features of a 007 film - the gorgeous Aston Martin DBS was woefully under-utilized, and Q. failed to make an appearance at all, but I am only realizing that as I write this now; therefore, the film is a success. It had the visibly insane villain, part of a sinister secret organization, with a grandiose, but semi-viable plan to hold the world for ransom. It had the exotic Bond girl, with a stand-by tying into the dream of England. It had the characters of spies who stayed true to their ideals, even as others around them fell from grace. And it had action scenes that managed to be exciting without resorting to fashionable gimmicks like parkour (although I do wish they would stop with the Bourne-style shakycam photography).

It even managed to give a satisfactory explanation for the title to those who cared to look for it. So thumbs up to Quantum of Solace, and a hearty "welcome back" to Bond, James Bond.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Old Money, New Money

Old Money, New Money
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Some Estonian trivia for you. The original 1-kroon coin was made of white metal, and by some coincidence had the exact weight, thickness and diameter of a German 1DM coin. Since the currency was pegged at 8EEK to 1DM, this made the Estonian coins very popular in German vending machines.

I don't remember exactly when the white coin was phased out and replaced with the yellow, but I think it was before the paper 1-kroon note was taken out. Certainly some time before Germany adopted the Euro.

The other coin is the brand new 2008 mint, with the 90th Anniversary logo.

Monday, November 03, 2008


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